PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity

Popular anthropology for everyone. Exploring the familiar and the strange, demystifying and myth busting human culture, biology and behaviour in all times and places. Myths, music, art, archaeology, language, food, festivals, fun.
Welcome to the anthropocene!
PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Pleasure, community, and air guitar

by on

Co-written by Paul Mullins and Justin "Nordic Thunder" Howard

In April 2012, 35 second-graders in northern Finland stood at rapt, if quizzical, attention for a lesson in air guitar. The invitation to a physical, emotional, and musical performance came from the one of us who can claim the title of Air Guitar World Champion, Justin "Nordic Thunder" Howard.

Justin's visit to the Oulu International School came in the midst of the Air Guitar World Championships, which have been held in Oulu for 19 years. Air guitar's energetic public performance and unabashed goofiness is somewhat at odds with Finnish cultural restraint; nevertheless, the kids in Oulu are not alone in their initial uneasiness about publicly unleashing imaginary guitar licks and embracing guitar players' theatrical confidence.

Air guitar is perhaps the most accessible of all expressive arts: nearly everyone has an emotional fascination with musical performance and has somehow learned and can reproduce Chuck Berry and Angus Young's stylings. Few performance arts are able to summon forth the unfiltered giggles, audience enthusiasm, and egalitarianism of air guitar, and that pleasure may precisely be the point. The Finnish kids unleashing their best Stevie Ray Vaughan riffs confirm that air guitar is not simply about music; instead, it is a performance that imagines and expresses pleasure, confidence, and community.

Air Guitar's ability to gleefully capture our nearly universal emotional and bodily responses to music makes it an interesting egalitarian expressive art with an optimistic politics. The democratic notion that we can all play air guitar allows the Air Guitar World Championship to argue that its goal is to "promote world peace. According to the ideology of the Air Guitar, wars would end, climate change stop and all bad things disappear, if all the people in the world played the Air Guitar."

Nevertheless, air guitar's camp, sincerity, and theatre unsettle some observers who patrol the boundaries of art, metal, public restraint, and perhaps pleasure itself. While everybody can play air guitar, it illuminates the anxieties many people have about self-regulating their art, expression, and public display.

Some observers keen to patrol music and discipline predictably reduce air guitar to inauthentic imitation, casting all air guitarists as failed Eddie Van Halens. Emboldened by the anonymity of a YouTube comment board, one critic lamented that "as someone who actually learned to play, this is a sad realization that someone can get paid and revered for acting like someone else."

Yet many observers seem even more dismayed by the apparent acceptability of an air guitar championship, with one concluding that "this is just plain stupid…the whole event. It isn't remotely funny. I feel embarrassed for anyone there…on stage and off." Another person suggested that "the only thing more pathetic than this are the people that came to watch," and one succinctly concluded that "this is an embarrassment to the human race."

These overwrought emotional reactions to air guitar illuminate the politics of pleasure that are evident in air guitar performance. The self-effacing, publicly embraced, goofy glee of air guitar owns up to our own desires for pleasure and acceptance that many of us systematically repress. This potentially makes air guitar liberating and even egalitarian for many people: the acceptance of each other's performances and love of music itself creates a very powerful sense of community among air guitar players.

Indeed, it may be impossible to embarrass an air guitarist: the very act of playing an invisible guitar on stage in front of strangers would be mortifying for many people, so air guitar performances can be exhilarating and bonding. Air guitar performances embrace goofy theatricality and the joy of publicly imagining music, and they bond performers and audiences in a community that encourages and celebrates each other's performances.

Justin "Nordic Thunder" Howard. Image by Alyce Henson
Justin "Nordic Thunder" Howard. Image by Alyce Henson

Nevertheless, air guitar inspires anxiety and seems dangerous to other people who are apparently unable to surrender their personal constraints or allow us to see their toes tapping to AC/DC. Air guitar may not actually "play" music, but it acknowledges, embraces, and then unleashes our bodily responses to music; it captures the theatricality and emotional intensity of musicians; and it builds a distinctive form of community that revolves around the pleasures of performance and community.

When an air guitarist steps out on stage she or he exudes the same sort of confidence: in some cases, performing air guitar is the only time these performers secure such confidence, a confidence strengthened by the trust developed between performers and audiences, and their performances are perhaps the only times they are able to achieve that intense level of pleasure.

Guitar players like Yngwie Malmsteen deliver virtuoso performances of skill and power, and air guitar embraces that theatrically as it performs the physical dimensions of that playing. Most air guitarists probably have at one point in their lives dreamt of being a "real" rock star, and air guitar allows them to theatrically imagine such a dream. Yet perhaps more importantly there is something that just feels good about playing make-believe amongst a community of people nurturing each other's joys.

Perhaps what the unleashed Finnish kids' performances reflect is the pleasure many of us take in the release from restraint, rationality, and self-consciousness. Air guitarists playfully tap into the pleasures that they so easily entertained as children, so air guitar's brazen ignorance of behavioural discipline makes some people upset as they are unwilling or unable to tap their own suppressed creativity.

Air guitar may not have the effect on global warming that it so cheekily suggests it can, but it does embrace pleasure and community in profoundly meaningful ways for many people.

2014 Air Guitar Champion Runner-Up, American Matt "Airistotle" Burns. Image by Aleksi Ollila
2014 Air Guitar Champion Runner-Up, American Matt "Airistotle" Burns. Image by Aleksi Ollila
Guy "The Bandit" Thompson (UK). Image by Aleksi Ollila
Guy "The Bandit" Thompson (UK). Image by Aleksi Ollila
2014 Air Guitar World Championship group. Image by Aleksi Ollila
2014 Air Guitar World Championship group. Image by Aleksi Ollila

Wars would end, climate change stop and all bad things disappear, if all the people in the world played the Air Guitar Air Guitar World Championship

comments powered by Disqus

Full Size Image
2014 Air Guitar World Champion Nanami "Seven Seas" Nagura of Japan. Image by Aleksi Ollila
2014 Air Guitar World Champion Nanami "Seven Seas" Nagura of Japan. Image by Aleksi Ollila